Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Student Blog Post: Issues in urban equity and Newark traffic citations

Image by Mayk c/o vox europ

The young man in front of me in municipal court, calmly reiterated his previous statement: “I’d rather take 10 days in jail right now, than go home and come back for a few more hours of court in a week. I’d rather you take my freedom away for 10 full days, than retain a public defender free of charge, and get my paper work in order.” That was the response I got from a defendant in traffic court in Newark, New Jersey on an otherwise normal afternoon. This was a simple case: A polite and generally pleasant young man was pulled over and charged with driving on a suspended license. Given the defendant’s driving record, the penalty for such an offense could amount to up to 10 days in jail.

The young man was issued a traffic citation for driving on a suspended license, even though the suspension period had expired 2 days before he had ever gotten back behind the wheel. This was an administrative issue in reality. Although the young man’s driving suspension had ended, and he thought it was therefore safe for him to resume driving, there was a caveat in the system: in order to be able to resume driving, a suspended person must travel to the Division of Motor Vehicles subsequent to their suspension period, and officially “restore” their license by filling out brief paper work and paying a fee. In the eyes of the law, driving after the suspension period had been lifted, but without taking the affirmative steps necessary to restore one’s driving privileges, was the same as driving on a suspended license – period. To the trained legal mind, this type of statutory/bureaucratic issue is an unavoidable consequence. To the marginally sophisticated layperson, this is a frustrating headache, but at least the situation is tenable to them. As a matter of fact, in my early 20s, I encountered the same situation. Alarmed by the possibility of jail-time, I promptly retained private counsel, made my way to the DMV, and appeared in court, taking care of the matter for about 500 dollars and a few hours of my time.

But this defendant was not someone of my suburban privilege and resources. This was a young man from inner city Newark. Getting to the DMV for this young man required juggling a demanding work schedule with the limited hours of the DMV (at a job probably already made difficult by him not being able to drive), trying to catch a bus (or several), and coming up with money to pay the restoration fee on top of all that.  All of this, in addition to the fact that circular administrative procedures had muddled what this person had thought to be a straightforward penalty, and one which he was more than willing to serve, undoubtedly undermined his faith in the entire court system, especially now that I was telling him he needed to do a myriad of additional “roundabout” things in order to ensure he could avoid jail, including stepping back into this confusing, unfair, and oppressive courtroom.

All of us constantly complain about “the bureaucracy”, loathing its sluggish ineffectiveness and its illogical procedural obstacle courses; many of us procrastinate and attempt to put it off, but would any one of us make the conscious decision to forsake our freedom for 10 days, and sit in jail rather than go stand in line? One of fifty similar cases that I saw in Newark over the course of only two months, these young people, with no criminal record other than traffic penalties, were ready and willing to acquire a prison record, which would affect them for years to come, rather than face the intimidating specter of the DMV.

As puzzling and surprising as it was for me, it soon became clear that doing time in prison was more familiar to many of these people then attempting to maneuver crowded court rooms and administrative offices filled with quick talking suit-wearing equivocators, who never really seemed to improve their situation. The constant mail, the warrants, the threats of arrest, the appointments, the fees, the surcharges, this young man would do almost anything for it all to stop, including give up his freedom and go straight to jail, even though he really did nothing even close to culpable enough to land him there. Going to prison over these kinds of issues is obviously the ultimate sacrifice as a free, American citizen. There are, however, many severe sacrifices of freedom and rights associated with this same issue, and they are slowly taking hold of our nation.

Recently, the Supreme Court issued a ruling, which denied a petition for an emergency vacating of a stay granted by the fifth circuit court of appeals in the matter of Veasey v. Perry. What this means in plain English is that the fifth circuit court of appeals has agreed to review a lower court ruling issued in Veasey V. Perry, and in the meantime, has suspended an order of the trial court, with the Supreme Court approving.  But suspending the order of the trial court resulted in more than 600,000 registered Texas voters being prevented from voting in the recent mid-term elections, most of them Black and Latino. What does this have to do with my court story? Everything.

My court story is relevant because Veasey v. Perry was a challenge to a recent Texas law that required all registered voters to present a valid photo I.D. at their respective polling station in order to be allowed to cast a vote. Not all photo I.D. gets treated equally in terms of validity according to the state of Texas however. Concealed carry permits, a Texas Driver’s License, or a U.S. passport are acceptable, while Veteran’s I.D. cards, and Student I.D.’s from four-year colleges are not. This law varies significantly from similar voter I.D. laws enacted in other states such as Wisconsin, which required I.D. but took at least some steps to appear as anything less than thinly veiled attempts at making it harder for under-privileged minority citizens to vote. As Justice Ginsburg rightly points out in her dissent to the Supreme Courts order:

“Wisconsin’s law permits a photo ID from an in-state four-year college and one from a federally recognized Indian tribe. Texas, under Senate Bill 14, accepts neither. Nor will Texas accept photo ID cards issued by the U. S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.”

Ginsburg goes on to call Senate Bill 14 an unconstitutional poll tax, as she points out that in order to obtain the requisite paper work to acquire one of the valid photo I.D.s, one must locate inter alia, a valid birth certificate, which in the state of Texas costs $22 dollars. What Ginsburg did not point out, was that even if many of these poor people could find $22, several people may have a hard time even knowing where to start this process, having complicated familial and living situations. Texas does offer voters without photo I.D. the opportunity to get an “election identification certificate”, provided they attain the birth certificate, but as Ginsburg points out, at least 400,000 eligible voters face round trips of more than 3 hours to the nearest DPS office in order to obtain such a document.

When people are willing to sit behind bars in excess of a week in order to avoid having to encounter bureaucratic obstacles, it is an understatement to say that three-hour round trips (obviously without driver’s licenses and cars), and combing through old documents, on top of fees for birth certificates, licenses, or other forms of I.D. could be a possible impediment to voting. In reality, the state of Texas has put forth a law that on its face does what nightclub owners in New Jersey have long done on a much less conspicuous level: use photo I.D. as a way to screen out and marginalize minority citizens.

When I worked in the music industry during my early 20’s, it was commonplace for various club owners to inform me that the number of my minority clientele (the majority of my network, friends, and patrons) would be limited on one night or another for one reason or another. In order to maintain the desired ratio of attendance, club bouncers would be instructed to come up with arbitrary qualifications for entry. Sometimes it was to require a student I.D. from only African-American patrons. Sometimes it was a subjective “Dress code” requirement, but everyone knew what it was really about.

When a state acts in this same manner, and arbitrarily distinguishes between Veterans, or Student I.D. and a concealed carry permit, and when such distinctions overwhelmingly affect the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of minority voters, and when these measures are allowed to be implemented by our Supreme Court, we should all be very concerned about the state of our democracy. When people on AM radio, and people dwelling in the automobile fueled suburban sprawl that is the new United States, express their distain for anyone who cannot obtain I.D., declaring that anyone in 2014 can obtain such I.D. easily, I point back to the young man I met in municipal court in Newark.

As for that young man, I refused to accept a guilty plea that day. I talked him into walking down the hall and retaining a public defender. I told him I refused to let him harm himself and those around him by voluntarily going to jail for such an absurd reason. I asked the judge for an adjournment, and it was granted. A few weeks later, I bumped into him and he thanked me for my help, letting me know he was glad that he had taken the time to sort his situation out. In reality, I know that all he needed was some clear guidance from someone who understood his situation. I like to think that my guidance has helped to restore some of his faith in our system, but I fear decisions like Veasey v. Perry will only serve to undermine such progress.

I believe that our voting systems need to be updated as we progress as a society, and if voter-fraud is a genuine issue, then we need to put systems in place that prevent it. That quite probably means eventually requiring photo I.D. to vote, but we can implement such policies in a way that takes the real issues that face our fellow citizens in under-privileged and urban areas into consideration. The vote itself will usually always be political, but the right to vote should never be, not in this country. As an American, I don’t think I could ever stand by and watch that happen, knowing what I know, and what I’ve seen. Truly, I’d rather go to jail.